Saturday, 10 November 2007

Retiring, but not shy

I learned this morning that the headmaster of my old school is to retire.

I have fond memories of school. It was a comprehensive whose intake sliced through the city geographically and socio-economically, and provided a secure and supportive melting pot in which to work through and emerge from the tribulations of teenhood. Political awareness was encouraged, with staff being comfortable to espouse their political views. It was not uncommon for staff and students to be found discussing the issues of the day during breaks or lunchtime. I have no doubt that the headmaster was the cornerstone of the school's success in this role.

He was an inspirational leader, and despite being subjected by his students to some taxing moments, including explaining to the local press why hundreds of his students had refused to attend lessons for the day and had instead "gone on strike", and having to calm the panic that rapidly spread throughout the school after a student welcomed one of his gun-brandishing friends into the building, I recall him never acting in a manner that was anything other than professional. This did not constrain his personality or generosity of spirit. One moment particularly stands out.

He was leading an assembly on the theme of "Heroes". This would have been around 1996, Nelson Mandela had been elected president of South Africa a couple of years previously, in the country's first democratic election.

The head read from "Long Walk to Freedom". I cannot remember the excerpt he chose, other than it speaking of the injustice and indecency to which Mandela and fellow prisoners were subjected. I only recall being completely absorbed by the presence of this man who was prepared to expose to several hundred teenagers something which mattered deeply to him. He welled up as he read, his voice cracked, the tears flowed. I remember the shared sense of disbelief amongst the students that the head, who needed to command the respect of hundreds of teenagers, would be prepared to stand alone on a stage and cry in order to convey to the assembled masses the strength of his belief in the qualities he was conveying. I doubt there are many people who would be prepared to put themselves in such a position. Had any other teacher have attempted this, I suspect they would have been the butt of jokes for the remainder of our school years.

It was enormously impressive, a single incident in which my understanding and ideas of authority and leadership underwent a paradigm shift, when having authority did not require an aura of invulnerability, superior strength, intellect, or power.

I wish him a long and happy retirement.

11 comments:

Casdok said...

A lovely post.
And lovely to meet you today! Glad i wore the bondage head gear so you would recognise me rather than the more subtle Shrek ears!

Pixie said...

When someone in authority touches us like that it really does echo down our years. Good story and great that it had a profound affect on you.
pxx

DJ Kirkby said...

You were still in school in 1996? Good gawd you're young! Well compared to me at least...

Rob Clack said...

Wow! Impressed.

But Why? said...

Casdok,
Likewise, though I still don't understand why you needed to continue wearing it after we had established identities....

Pixie,
Doesn't it just? And way beyond the call the call of duty. Then again, I guess to remain in one job for twenty years, you have to be dedicated and the job rather rewarding. I've often thought I'd like to teach, but I'd prefer to do it as a second, third or fourth career, and come at it with a bit of experience and (dare I suggest it?) wisdom that I otherwise would not have acquired.

DJ,
Yup. How old did you think I was?

Rob C,
It was deeply impressive. I'm glad it comes across - I'm considering sending this post into the school by way of tribute.

trousers said...

Great stuff. What you write at the end reminds me of one of the best working relationships I've had, a boss who would ask my advice or opinion when she was unsure or genuinely didn't know something. I'd never had this so openly from someone "further up" than me, and similarly she was never patronising or dismissive the many times I sought advice and guidance from her.

As has been mentioned, these are the people you remember.

But Why? said...

Trousers,
Decent (and if you're really lucky, occasional excellent) working relationships go a long way towards making a job enjoyable. For me, they are a weightier factor in enjoying work than the nature of the work I'm doing. Having said that, I'd love to swap the office for being a lock keeper, or similar...

BBC said...

Favorite book - The Periodic Table

For some reason I found that amusing. I don't use it often but I like my pocket reference book, there are all sorts of formulas and things in it.

But Why? said...

BBC,
Hi. Welcome. The periodic table I was referring to was/is a collection of reminiscences by a chap called Primo Levi, but I do have a huge amount of respect for the one constructed by Mendeleev et al. Having never fully developed a love for the Chemistry of the Elements (in fact, the text book of the same name has been one of my staple insomnia cures for many years), I always resented the fact that there were so many elements on the thing, particularly as many of the heavier ones don't hang around long enough to stick in a jar and label, and because I had to learn the whole damned thing in order to have a passing shot of passing my final exams. A PhD later, I failed to progress to working with anything more exotic than distilled water, which is a substance bizarre enough to keep me entertained for many years. Francium? Bah, humbug...

What is your reference book, by the way?

Yorkshire Pudding said...

You're talking about Michael Lewis at King Ted's aren't you? One of my friends is his PA at the school and she is in awe of the guy.They don't make them like that any more.

But Why? said...

Pudding (if I may be so bold...),

And there I was thinking that he wasn't instantly recognisable from my description. I get more in awe as time passes, actually, and recognise what a special human environment the school had created. I hope, and have no reason to doubt, that it is even more special today.